Fun With Monitoring Software

Due to new regulations from the Department of Education that come into effect from September 2016 regarding Keeping Children Safe in Education, new software has been installed across the school network to ensure the appropriate use and monitoring of the ICT facilities and the Internet for safeguarding purposes…

That was how my email to parents began, and the software in question is Impero. It’s powerful stuff, as in effect it is spyware that is deliberately installed onto our computers. While on our network we have always had ways to control computers and prevent students accessing inappropriate resources, this is the most invasive program of its type we’ve had. It records everything. And I mean everything.

Go onto a website you shouldn’t, it gets logged. Open a file that contains a flagged word, it gets logged. Receive an email, it gets logged. Type a word, logged. Print, logged. Even programs that run in the background get logged in an historical record of your account. The program checks against a list of words to see if any of them appear on the screen (or in HTML code for webpages) and if they do it takes a screenshot or recording and saves it for review later.

It’s probably a good idea now to voice my opinions on having to install this amount of monitoring for staff and students, so skip the next few paragraphs if you want.

Personally, I don’t see the point of it. While I know it’s there for our protection and to make sure that we aren’t subjecting children to harm, various “radicalisation” sections seem more security theatre than anything else (there are other categories, such as “adult” and “hacking” too, to add a balanced argument here). Sure, a student may decide to look at this type of stuff, but if they’re going to do it in a school location where they’re notified they are being monitored, then they really must be stupid. This is even more so when they could do it at home on a device they own and have full control of, with none of this stuff installed. There is a slim chance that this could actually “catch” someone, but most of the time it’s unlikely.

One of the problems caused by having a large variety of words that get filtered is that some are used to make up other parts of words: grape, basement and Maths exams for example. The other problem caused by this is who has to monitor it. In the 3 days we’ve had it running it flagged around 450 items each day, and we’re only a small school. The headteacher has suggested us in the IT department do it, but to go through that many on top of our other jobs is unmanageable. A way around this is to turn off some of the most highly flagged up “innocent” words, but there’s a tradeoff here with missing something. Some of the things that get flagged up may also be confidential or highly sensitive in nature too, which is something we don’t want to know about. The easiest way around this is to turn the software off for those users, but if they then go onto something they shouldn’t (unlikely, but you never know), the school won’t be informed. I could go on, but for now there’s fun stuff to be had instead.

Anyway, knowing what words get flagged and how the software works, it got me wondering if it’s possible to write a totally innocent “email” to someone yet get yourself flagged on a watch list somewhere. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to see how many they can spot.

Dear Bob,

How are you doing since you moved down to Essex? It’s been a few weeks now, hasn’t it? Hope that you’re getting on better with your new neighbours, and don’t seem to come from planet Zog like your previous ones. Have you finished your basement conversion into your theatre room? If so, I’ll bring the Oreos and come down to watch a few films!

In other news, we’ve reached a few new milestones here this week. Jimmy scored a 9/11 in his maths test, and Dave has started his controlled therapist sessions, so hopefully he’ll come out feeling better from them.

Here’s a quick funny story. Helping my boss the other day with a computer problem, I asked him to press start, but they didn’t know what I meant. Proof that management has no idea about what happens in IT. Actually, while I’m on school stuff a student had a Tweetie Pie doll on their keychain, and all out of nowhere I said “I tawt I taw a pussy cat!”. Turns out it should be “puddy tat”, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Oh, do you remember the concert we were going to see? It was a disappointing no show from the band. They had to cancel at the last moment. We were offered full refunds, so now it’s time to do something else with it instead.

All the best,

Note: I am aware that I haven’t really talked about the classroom control side of this stuff, or even a proper review of the software. But how is that exciting?

Note 2: I’ve learnt a large number of definitions for words I didn’t even know about, nor did I want to.

Note 3: Sorry if you get flagged reading this article. I’m sure you can explain it away…

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